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Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

Time Event
8:35a
Great book ...
This is another book that I got through LibraryThing's "Early Reviewer" program ... but it's the first time that I've gotten what is a classic "ARC" (advance review copy), which is for some reason amusing the heck out of me. Usually I've seen pretty much "bookstore ready" copies, but this is obviously an "in progress" project ... so I'm showing you what the book's going to look like and what the copy I got looks like here. There are various quirky things that I'm not used to seeing (all the page numbers on the Contents page are "000", waiting final edits!), but I guess we're not supposed to talk about those sorts of details.

Anyway, Mitch Horowitz' Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation is a great book. I've been very disappointed, generally speaking, with what I've seen from ER program over at LibraryThing (but, as the old saw goes: whaddya want for nuthin'?), and it's very pleasant to have a book come in from them that I'm extremely enthusiastic about. There's a particular type of book which serves as a jumping-off place for a whole spectrum of other reading, and this is one of those ... not only was it chock-full of information that I didn't know, in the course of reading it there were references to a good dozen other books that I'm now wanting to dig into.

The author here is a seasoned veteran of the publishing industry, and is widely known via articles and interview in the new age press, but this is his first book. I actually started reading this with the "about the author" and "acknowledgment" sections, and was wondering just how the book would read when he says "An author stands on the shoulders of his editors." before naming four editors that worked with him on this project (not counting the author himself!), and was pleased to find that this did not noticeably lead to a "written by committee" feel ... although there were a handful of "industry snarks" peppered in the text.

Occult America is pretty much set up as a chronological account (although things do jump around a bit as it goes topic-to-topic), starting with some of the earliest settlers coming over to America in the 1690's and running up through Edgar Cayce. I was somewhat surprised that the book sort of "faded out" at the end, with not much of the '80s, '90s, or current decade's manifestations, but figured that the author was dealing more with "history" and some of the more recent organizations/movements are likely still "in flux" too much to add them to the things covered here. Frankly, the book is less about "the Occult" than it is something of a genealogy of the New Age movement. While Aleister Crowley gets mentioned, he's a peripheral figure (and I don't believe that, other than Regardie, any of his followers ... Parsons, etc. ... even get name-checked), I also don't recall Gurdjieff (or the "4th Way") making it into the book, or popularized Sufism (outside of the fez-wearing crowd), and while there's a reference to Zen, the actual (as opposed to the Theosophical myth) Tibetan Vajrayana flowering here goes unnoticed. The focus of the book is very much on the "mainstream eccentric" (and generally Christian-based) traditions, from the Spiritualists in upstate New York to the likes of B.O.T.A. and AMORC and the various other "mail order" mystical traditions, weaving back and forth into Theosophy, Masonry, etc., often with political connections.

What is amazing is how long a lot of "The Laws of Attraction" / "The Secret" sort of stuff has been kicking around ... I've only recently delved into this particular end of the metaphysical universe, and was surprised to find that it's both been "done" to such a great extent and somewhat discouraged to find that its roots are less than esoteric (unless, of course, this material did appear via some "ascended master's" over-night crayon scribblings!) and more flim-flam than I would have preferred to think.

Again, I found this a riveting read, with bits and pieces of information that I wanted to rush right over to Amazon to check out, and I would certainly recommend it to anybody with an interest in "this sort of thing" (which I, needless to say, have). However, as a reading experience, the caveats above lead to a vague feeling of disappointment. While not asking it to be encyclopedic in its scope, it leaves out quite a lot in what seems to be an effort to focus on individuals (some having only transitory impact) who had influence in this area, and the "fading out" aspect makes it feel "unfinished" (unless, of course, the ARC that I was sent is prior to a final edit that would add material to give the narrative some closure). While I had been "generally aware" of several of the people/movements outlined in Occult America, the overall perception that this material "came out of the 60's" certainly gets eradicated and a far wider context is put in place, however, as noted, this does appear to be more a survey of the roots of the "New Age" movement than the "occult influences on America" that the title would suggest!

As this has not been officially released yet (the on-sale date is 9/15), I don't have any "money saving" suggestions other than that Amazon has pre-orders available at a 34% discount. I've already enthusiastically recommended this to several friends, and despite the points covered above, would encourage anybody interested in the subject to pick this up as a reference and jumping-off point for further research!


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